Book Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Title: Fairy Tale
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: September 6, 2022
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Legendary storyteller Stephen King goes deep into the well of his imagination in this spellbinding novel about a seventeen-year-old boy who inherits the keys to a parallel world where good and evil are at war, and the stakes could not be higher—for their world or ours.

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.

Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.

A story as old as myth, and as startling and iconic as the rest of King’s work, Fairy Tale is about an ordinary guy forced into the hero’s role by circumstance, and it is both spectacularly suspenseful and satisfying.

In Fairy Tale, master author Stephen King takes a kind-hearted 17-year-old and sends him on an epic quest to battle forces of evil and save a kingdom.

Also, there’s a very good dog. And because I know this is important for many readers to know up front: The dog will be fine! (Stories that treat book doggos badly can be a deal-breakers for many readers, so now you can rest easy and proceed).

Charlie is a strong, self-reliant boy who loves his father, but he’s also had to shoulder far too heavy a burden in his short life. After his mother’s tragic death, his father became lost to alcoholism, and Charlie had to care for himself and his father through the dark years until his father finally found sobriety. For all that, Charlie is remarkably well-adjusted, but he does think back with regret on the mean-spirited pranks and cruel behaviors he indulged in during the worst of days.

When he hears a dog barking from behind the large, spooky house on the hill, he intends to just move on, until he hears a faint voice crying for help. Charlie discovers Mr. Bowditch, the old man who lives alone in the house, severely injured in the backyard. He calls for help, then makes a decision that this perhaps is his opportunity to atone for the bad behavior in his past, and becomes completely devoted to Mr. Bowditch and his elderly dog Radar.

While Mr. Bowditch is hospitalized, Charlie takes on caring for Radar, and begins work on cleaning and repairing the house. After Mr. Bowditch is released, it’s Charlie who takes on the responsibility of daily care, going far above and beyond would might be expected of a teenager (or even most adults). Through their time together, the two become very close, but Mr. Bowditch holds onto his secrets tightly — although he does tell Charlie how to access his safe and the bucket full of gold pellets stored within, and how to exchange the pellets for the money needed to pay the hospital bills.

When Mr. Bowditch suffers a fatal heart attack some months later, Charlie and his father are shocked to learn that Charlie has inherited the house, the property, and everything it contains. Even more shocking is the cassette tape Mr. Bowditch has left, telling Charlie a strange tale about a journey to a hidden world and the magical device there that allows one to regain youth and health. With Radar in sharp decline, Charlie realizes that following the instructions on the tape might be his only option for saving Radar’s life. And so the quest begins.

Fairy Tale in many ways embodies the traditional Hero’s Journey, with Charlie receiving a call to action, setting out on a quest, gaining allies along the way, sinking to darkest depths (in this case, spending weeks/months (?) in a literal dungeon), before finding redemption and reemergence. It’s brilliantly constructed — we can see the framework and understand what King is doing, while still becoming totally immersed in the magical and dangerous world that Charlie enters.

At the same time, Charlie himself recognizes the influence of stories and how they seep through worlds into realities. Rumpelstiltskin, the Goose Girl, the Little Mermaid, Jack and the Beanstalk — all are present in some variation here, not as literal retellings but as universal tropes that inform the reality that Charlie now finds himself in.

Based on the synopsis, I’d expected the portal elements to kick in pretty early in the story, but in fact, it’s not until around 30% that Charlie first ventures through the passage to the alternate world. The first third of the story is devoted to Charlie’s family’s backstory and his growing relationship with Mr. Bowditch (and Radar!). This is really effective, as it grounds everything that follows in a realistic beginning in our own world, and gives a solid basis for why Charlie acts as he does, both his devotion to providing care to Mr. Bowditch and his actions on his portal adventure.

The flow does seem to lag for a bit in the middle of the story. As I mentioned, there’s a dungeon involved, and Charlie’s time imprisoned there drags on long enough that my interest flagged. Likewise, the sections about Charlie and his fellow prisoners being forced to train for and then compete in a Hunger Games-like tournament to the death felt overly long and drawn out.

Those elements aside, the plot is mostly fast-paced, full of surprises, odd-ball and quirky characters, memorable settings, and a superbly crafted sense of wonder and menace that hangs over every step of Charlie’s journey. Charlie himself is wonderful — smart, caring, and sensitive, but flawed enough that he’s not too good to be true.

Fairy Tale is a big, thick book, but absolutely worth the time and attention. I was captivated, often scared on behalf of the characters, and fully invested in the outcome and the stakes. The world Charlie visits is fascinating, and I would have loved to have spent even more time exploring it at the conclusion of the quest.

Wrapping this up… I highly recommend Fairy Tale! It’s a treat for King fans, but also an easily accessible entry point for those who haven’t read his books before or who feel that his books are too terrifying for them! Yes, there are some frights and scary beings, and as I said, plenty of menace, but this book doesn’t have the absolute terror of, say, Pet Sematary or It.

Fairy Tale is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of a mythical, magical adventure, and it’s a wonderfully engaging read, start to finish. Don’t miss it!

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 books with doorways

I’m sticking with Top 5 Tuesday again this week! I’m participating in the meme originally created by Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm, now hosted by Meeghan Reads.

This month’s topics are like a bookish scavenger hunt — what fun! You can see all the topics for March here.

This week, it’s all about doorways, and I’m happy to share a few faves:

  • Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune: Sweet and uplifting!
  • A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle: I read this one ages ago, and I think this is as far as I got in the Wrinkle in Times series. Someday, I’ll go back and read the rest!
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow: I loved this book so much! The plot is fascinating, and I loved the main character.
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire: The first book in the Wayward Children series introduces us to a world where doors lead children to new lives. Such a favorite.
  • The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley: A fairy tale collection that includes new stories as well as retellings. All are lovely.

What “door” books do you love?

As always, if you have a TTT or T5T post this week, please share your link!

Book Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, #7) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Where the Drowned Girls Go
Series: Wayward Children, #7
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 4, 2022
Length: 150 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: ARC via Netgalley; hardcover purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you’ve already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.

There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again.
It isn’t as friendly as Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.

And it isn’t as safe.

When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn’t save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.

She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming…

If it’s January, it must be time for a new Wayward Children book!

Children have always been drawn to the doors.

In the 7th in the series, Where the Drowned Girls Go, the main character is Cora, whom we’ve met in previous installments as a secondary character. Here, she takes center stage.

Cora is a mermaid. That is, she was an ordinary human child until she went through a door to the world of the Trenches, an undersea world where Cora became a hero and a mermaid. Even though she was returned to her “real” world, she knows she belongs back in the Trenches… or she did, until (in book #5, Come Tumbling Down), she accompanies her friends through a door to the Moors, where she has a fateful encounter with the Drowned Gods.

She used to put her head down on the pillow and let the night take her away, off into dreams full of deep, diamond-dappled water, diving down where the currents were warm and the waters were always welcoming.

Since the Moors, though… since the Moors, her dreams were still full of water and waves, but the sea she swam in while she slept was no longer remotely kind. It was filled with teeth, and colder than she would have believed the water could be.

Now, back at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, Cora can’t shake the memories of the Moors and the awful whispers of the Drowned Gods, who want to drag her back down to their terror-filled realm. Feeling hopeless, Cora requests a transfer to the Whitethorn Institute, the other school for children who journey through portals to strange worlds and come back again. Against Eleanor West’s advice, Cora insists on the transfer, and soon finds herself in a very different type of school.

Days at the Whitethorn Institute always followed the same pattern, as perfect and predictable as a spider’s web.

At Whitethorn, the emphasis in on conformity. The students are urged through behavioral control to abandon any thought of other worlds. They must learn that this is the only world that exists, and give up the fantasies and delusions of other lives. It’s harsh, full of punishments and insistence on obedience, with an overwhelming grayness to it all.

But Cora is still a mermaid at heart, and soon comes to realize what an awful mistake she’s made. And when her friend Sumi shows up at Whitethorn on a rescue mission… well, things really get interesting.

I love the world of the Wayward Children, and despite the bleakness of the new school, there’s still plenty of magic and nonsense to appreciate in Where the Drowned Girls Go.

One of the truly special things about this series is how it celebrates otherness. The children in these books struggle to fit in in their “normal” worlds, and finding their doors is key to discovering who they truly are. What’s clear throughout this series is that the children’s differences aren’t the problem — the problem is a world that has no place for children who don’t conform.

As always, the writing is spectacular. Rovina Cai is back as the illustrator, and her drawings (again, as always) are beautiful and perfectly in tune with the narrative of the story.

Illustration by @RovinaCaiArt

I love this series so, so much. If you haven’t tried these books yet, start at the beginning! I’m thrilled that three more books in the series are listed on Goodreads — here’s hoping the Wayward Children thrive for years to come!

Book Review: Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Across the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 12, 2021
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: ARC via Netgalley; hardcover purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

A new Wayward Children book is always cause for celebration, and Across the Green Grass Fields is no exception.

In this book, the 6th in the series, we’re introduced to a young girl named Regan. She has lovely, loving parents, and is crazy about horses and riding lessons. At school, she originally had two best friends, Heather and Laurel, but when Heather dared to express interest in something Laurel deemed un-girl-like, Heather became shunned — and Regan learned her lesson. To retain her place as Laurel’s best friend, conformity is all that matters. She has to embrace Laurel’s strict rules about what girls do and don’t do and do and don’t like, if she wants to not end up like poor Heather.

Laurel was one of the “lucky ones,” according to the girls who flocked around her in their ribbons and flounces, praising her developing breasts like they were something she’d accomplished through hard work and personal virtue, not hormones and time.

But when Regan learns an unexpected truth from her parents, she makes the awful mistake of confiding in Laurel, and then realizes that she’s just blown up her own world. Distraught, Regan runs away into the woods, where she sees an unusual door, with the words “Be Sure”. In that moment, Regan is sure that anything would be better than where she is now, and she steps through into an entirely new world.

In the Hooflands, Regan is the only human in a world peopled by different hooved species — unicorns, centaurs, kelpies, and more. She is taken in by a family of centaurs, who adopt her as one of their own and love her fiercely. With the love of the centaurs, Regan grows and thrives — missing her parents, of course, but feeling more and more that she’s finally found a place to just be herself, a place that feels like a real home. And it’s Chicory, the centaur daughter, who shows Regan what a real friend can be:

In Chicory, she had finally found a friend who liked her for who she was, not for how well she fit an arbitrary list of attributes and ideals.

The only downside is that everyone in the Hooflands believes that humans have a destiny. Humans show up rarely, but when they do, they’re meant to save the world…. and then they disappear. No one really knows the how and why of it all, but all believe that sooner or later, Regan will have to confront the Queen of the Hooflands and do whatever it is that’s needed to save the world.

Destiny wasn’t real. Destiny was for people like Laurel, who could pin everything they had to an idea that the world was supposed to work in a certain way, and refuse to let it change. If these people said her destiny was to see the Queen, she would prove them wrong. She wasn’t their chosen one. She was just Regan, and as Regan, she ran.

Through her years in the Hooflands, Regan learns about listening to people and seeing beyond their surfaces, about true friendship and family, among making choices and remaining true to oneself, and about accepting and appreciating oneself, putting aside the unrealistic notions of “normal” and “destiny”. Regan learns to be Regan, and sees that she can be strong and pursue the people and activities that make her feel whole and good.

Across the Green Grass Fields is the first book in the Wayward Children series that does not include the Home for Wayward Children at all, although I imagine that that’s where Regan will be headed next. None of the characters from previous books pop up here either, so this book really can be read as a stand-alone. Still, it fits into the great world of the Wayward Children series, with its portal worlds and missing children and quests for meaning and one’s true place. Obviously, as a fan of the series, I’d recommend starting from the beginning and reading them all!

Across the Green Grass Fields includes illustrations by the amazingly talented Rovina Cai, and although I haven’t received my hard copy of the book yet, I’m already enchanted by the images available on Tor’s website, including this one of the centaur family:

Illustration by Rovina Cai; from Tor.com

The Wayward Children series as a whole is a delightful, magical experience, and Across the Green Grass Fields introduces a wonderful new world and heroine. Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Hollow Places
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel from the author of the “innovative, unexpected, and absolutely chilling” (Mira Grant, Nebula Award–winning author) The Twisted Ones.

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.

With her distinctive “delightfully fresh and subversive” (SF Bluestocking) prose and the strange, sinister wonder found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthThe Hollow Places is another compelling and white-knuckled horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

One word review: Creepy.

Five word review: Scary. Snarky. Weird. Nightmarish. Un-put-downable.

But let me expand a little…

In The Hollow Places, Kara (known as Carrot by her uncle and close friends) is recently divorced and without a place to live. Her uncle Earl runs a totally awesome-sounding small-town museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy). It’s a mish-mosh place full of (yes) taxidermied animals, fossils, relics, weirdness, and whatever people choose to send him. Earl is a sweetheart of a man, a total believer in whatever strangeness he comes across, but also kind-hearted and accepting and unconditionally loving when it comes to Kara.

Earl invites Kara to come live in the spare room at the back of the museum and help him with cataloguing and inventory. With so many positive memories of her time with Earl during her childhood, Kara is happy to accept. The taxidermy in the museum feels like being surrounded by old friends (and does not creep her out in the slightest, like it would for me!).

When Earl has to leave for a few weeks to get knee surgery, that’s when the weirdness starts. One day, Kara discovers a hole in a section of the drywall, which she attributes to clumsy tourists. Enlisting the help of Simon, the friendly and slightly odd barista next door, she plans to repair the hole… until they look inside it and see not the expected boards and plaster, but a corridor.

And it’s a corridor that should be impossible. Kara knows the layout of the building perfectly, and there just isn’t room for a long hallway like this. Naturally, they decide to explore, and end up in a bunker that opens onto an island in a river… in another world.

The world they discover is immediately disconcerting. There are willow trees everywhere, and the river is filled with small humped islands that appear to all contain bunkers. The sand has weird funnel-shaped holes, and there’s something just completely otherworldly and alien about this place.

The more they explore, the more horrors they discover, and they soon realize that they may not be able to get back to their own world.

I won’t go into too much more detail about the terror of this willow world, or what happens next, but it’s SCARY AF and gave me nightmares, for real. And despite the nightmares, I loved this book.

T. Kingfisher’s writing is funny and snarky, even when the circumstances are creepy and horrible. I love how Kara looks at the world, and some of the descriptions are laugh-out-loud hilarious, even in the midst of the terror.

Kara is a freelance graphic designer, and her worldview is amazing. Even while dealing with her disillusionment over her failed marriage and her jerk of an ex, she’s funny:

Dammit, I can’t believe I spent so much of my life on a man who would unironically post the line “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” And in Papyrus, too.

Simon is really fun too, and I love how he throws himself into the adventure with Kara, even while reminding them both how bad an idea this could be.

Come on, let’s go back to the coffee shop and I’ll make us Irish coffees and we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie.

Even as hideous danger looms, Kara is still Kara:

It sounded slow. If I got to my feet and grabbed my cane, I could hobble away, and then we could have the slowest chase scene ever.

I read a good portion of this book in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, and that pretty much guaranteed that I’d never be able to sleep again! Well, at least not that night.

The writing and the pacing are terrific, and the plot is weird and terrifying. The willow world is baffling and yet horrible, and there are certain descriptions that made me feel that I would drop dead of complete and utter fright if I found myself in Kara’s place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that besides the awesomeness of Kara, Simon, and Uncle Earl, and of course the museum itself, there’s also a Very Good Cat named Beau who is all sorts of amazing in the most cat-like ways possible. I’m guessing the author is an animal lover, because her previous book, The Twisted Ones, had a Very Good Dog as an important character. (Rest assured, Beau is just fine by the end of this book. Beau is a bad-ass.)

The Hollow Places is a crazy disturbing read, but I mean that in the best possible way. A perfect read for the creepy-reading month of October!

Book Review: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s award-winning, bestselling Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down picks up the threads left dangling by Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister–whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice–back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

I adore Seanan McGuire. I adore everything she writes. I adore the Wayward Children series.

So is it any surprise when I say that I loved Come Tumbling Down?

In this, the 5th installment in what I hope will be a long, ongoing series of fantasy novellas, we return to the events of book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and finally find out what happened next.

Which, right off the bat, tickles me pink, because Down Among the Sticks and Bones is — no question about it — my favorite in the entire series. So I was thrilled to return to the world of the Moors, the war between mad scientists and vampires, and the struggle to resurrect and reanimate that which has been lost.

For those new to this series, the basic idea is this: Eleanor West runs a boarding school for children who’ve returned to their parents’ homes after an absence which has left them strange and unmanageable. What the parents don’t understand, but Eleanor West certainly does, is that these missing children found doors to other worlds — world of logic or nonsense, worlds of virtue or wickedness, and all sorts of points on the compass between extremes**. Whether kicked out or voluntarily returned, the children no longer fit in their mundane lives, but find solace and shelter with the other misfits like themselves at the home for wayward children.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learned about twins Jack and Jill and their time spent on the Moors. We pick up their story in Come Tumbling Down as one of the twins returns to the school – but which one?

Oh, I really don’t want to give anything away! This book, like all the others, is filled to the brim with fantasy and danger and challenges, but rooted deeply by its unique and memorable characters. There’s Sumi, a nonsense girl who knows her destiny lies in the world of Confection; Cora, a mermaid who longs to return to the sea; Kade, a Goblin prince who accepts that his chosen world may not choose him any longer; and Christopher, who dreams of life in the land of Mariposa with his true love, the Skeleton Girl.

When the missing twin returns and needs help with her life-or-death quest, the friends are quick to stand by her and venture through the door to the Moors, risking their own lives in an attempt to right the balance so crucial in that world.

As in all of the Wayward Children books, Seanan McGuire’s writing is lyrical and magical, infusing every moment with otherworldly flavors and fantastical elements, some menacing, some magical, some downright funny.

I’ll share some chosen selections here, although narrowing it down to just a few is hard. Here’s what my book looked like by the time I got close to the end:

 Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scisors through her sister’s horrible heart.

“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix.

Sumi looked up and smiled serenely. “Look at the moon,” she said. “It’s like the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world.”

Indoor lightning storms, resurrected girls, and giant, bloody moons were terrifying enough without throwing in headless corpses, vampire lords, and something called a “Drowned God.”

And another from Sumi, because she’s awesome and so are her sundae analogies:

“This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

Ah, I’ll stop here. I loved this book, and I love this series wholeheartedly. Each of the books is lovely on its own, and Come Tumbling Down is a worthy, enthralling addition to the series.

Beautiful, haunting writing, a creep-tastic setting, mad scientists and Drowned Gods, and the bestest friends squad you’d ever want at your back. What more could we ask for?

A note of advice: If the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones aren’t fresh in your mind, then definitely pause for a re-read (or enjoy the excellent audiobook version) before diving in to Come Tumbling Down.

**Want to know more about the worlds of the Wayward Children books? Check out this excellent guide!

Illustration by Rovina Cai from Come Tumbling Down.
You will love these two horses. Promise.

Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

First, let’s pause to admire the sheer gorgeousness of this book cover. There. Now we’ve had our daily dose of beauty.

In The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a young woman learns that the world is not entirely as it appears, and that she herself isn’t quite who she thought she was.

January’s father is employed by the fabulously wealthy Mr. Locke to travel the world and seek out rare and exotic artifacts. Because his journeys take him away for months at a time, January lives in Mr. Locke’s mansion, pampered but isolated, feeling abandoned by her father and unsure of her place in the world.

When a battered book called The Ten Thousand Doors comes into her possession, January begins to learn about Doors — secret portals that bridge the thin connection between worlds. According to the book, Doors are real, and people who know how to look and find can access their pathways. And yet, there are those who would see these doors destroyed, viewing them as dangerous to the world we know.

The more January reads, the more she learns about the secrets of her own life and why she lives as she does. She also begins to learn about her own hidden powers, and realizes that her life with Mr. Locke is built on control and lies. But freedom comes at a steep cost with great danger, and as January struggles to get away, she becomes hunted by very powerful people who want her stopped.

The writing in this book is lovely, capturing the magic of books as well as the beauty of the natural world and the mysteries all around us. For book-lovers, there are special little passages that touch our hearts:

Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books — those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles — understand that page-riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book.

It’s like the author has been spying on me! How did she know that I feel the need to touch the spines of my favorite books when I see them at the library or a bookstore, and maybe whisper a quiet “hello” while I’m there?

The book’s imagery and use of unusual words also delighted me:

Time went strange. The hour-dragons stalked and circled. I heard their belly scales susurrating against the tile in my sleep.

January is a wonderful lead character, brave but not without fear, curious, open-minded, and desperate for both belonging and the truth. She risks herself over and over again to fight for freedom, and remains utterly loyal to the important people in her life. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that the truth about her family is its own story-within-a-story, and is beautiful as well.

Once we have agree that true love exists, we may consider its nature. It is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it.

The only thing that keeps this from being a 5-star read for me is that it really starts off slowly. I had to reach the 25% mark before I truly started to feel invested in January and the other characters. Of course, later I was so involved that I didn’t want to pause even to sleep, so I’m absolutely glad to have stayed with it. Still, I had enough doubts early on that it took me a while to overcome my reluctance and really plunge in.

A final note: As I read the excerpts from The Ten Thousand Doors (the book that January finds), I found myself struggling a bit with the footnotes and missed quite a few. They’re worth reading, but in Kindle format, they weren’t always easy to access and are actually embedded at the end of the book (at least in my copy), and the back and forth was a bit irritating. Small annoyance, but I thought I’d mention it.

I won’t say any more about the plot, but it’s best experienced fresh and without foreknowledge. I highly recommend The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It’s both an enchanting fantasy story and a very human story as well, with memorable characters and filled with emotion and passion. What a lovely read!

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The details:

Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!

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Book Review: In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire

 

This is the story of a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.

When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

For anyone . . .

Every Heart a Doorway was the first book in the Wayward Children series of novellas by Seanan McGuire, and ever since reading it, I’ve been captivated by the dreamy nature of the worlds portrayed. Now, here with the 4th book in the series, In An Absent Dream, the author once again works her magic through her lyrical, otherworldly writing.

In the Wayward Children books, we meet various children and teens who discover portals to magical worlds — but each door is unique to the particular child, taking him or her to a world that (in most cases) is exactly where that child belongs. We’ve seen people go to the halls of the dead, to a world made of cakes and sugary treats, to a world of monsters and haunted moors. In each case, the children involved may choose to stay, or may find themselves thrust out unwillingly — and when they’re forced out, they may spend the rest of their lives yearning for a way to get back “home”.

In this newest book, we’re reunited with a familiar face from the first book in the series. There, we met Lundy, a teacher at the boarding school inhabited by these wayward children. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Lundy is highly unusual and memorable, and is a favorite character for many readers of Every Heart a Doorway.

In An Absent Dream treats us to Lundy’s backstory, introducing us to her as a young child named Katherine who learns about fairness and independence and fitting in through the casual cruelty of other children. Lundy finds a door for the first time at age eight, and ends up in a world known as the Goblin Market. It’s a place of rules and absolute commitment to fairness. The most crucial rule is “always give fair value” — for every favor granted or assistance given, something of fair value must be given in return, or else a debt may be owed… and those who owe debts find themselves facing odd, disturbing changes.

As in the other Wayward Children books, the writing itself creates the magic — sometimes brooding, sometimes ethereal, sometimes menacing or full of foreboding. I simply can’t get enough of the delicious language. A few random samples:

It is an interesting thing, to trust one’s feet. The heart may yearn for adventure while the head think sensibly of home, but the feet are a mixture of the two, dipping first one way aand then the other.

They ran through the golden afternoon like dandelion seeds dancing on the wind, two little girls with all the world in front of them, a priceless treasure ready to be pillaged.

They held each other, both of them laughing and both of them weeping, and if this were a fairy tale, this is where we would leave them, the prodigal student and the unwitting instructor reunited after what should have been their final farewell. This is where we would leave them, and be glad of it, even as Lundy had long since left a girl named Katherine behind her.

Alas, that this is not a fairy tale.

These books are just too beautiful to miss. Read them, re-read them, maybe listen to the audiobooks, savor the lovely language… the Wayward Children books are not long, but they don’t need to be. In An Absent Dream and the other books in the series are must-reads. Start at the beginning and read all four!

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The details:

Title: In an Absent Dream
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased